Myriad environmental initiatives are all laudable but can create confusion at a time when unified action is urgently needed, Mike Golding tells YM Editor Theo Stocker
Climate change: Mike Golding OBE on why plastic pollution is a red herring
Mike Golding OBE is one of the most recognisable faces in offshore sailing today.
He has raced around the planet more times than most people have sailed round the Isle of Wight, in both crewed and solo races, in a career spanning more than 25 years.
It is this first-hand experience of the world’s oceans and how they are changing that has made him a passionate advocate for the environment.
Ever-approachable, he agreed to share some of his thoughts on the environmental challenges facing the planet, our seas, and us as sailors.
What are the biggest environmental issues facing us nationally or globally today?
There is a risk of sounding like David Icke when you begin speaking about global warming, but today it’s absolutely clear that for perhaps the first time, humans have reached an important crossroads in our history.
Human activity has and is still altering the delicate atmospheric balance which throughout human existence has maintained the critical temperature of our planet.
Since the early 19th century human industrialisation has rapidly increased the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Science agrees and many sailors have observed that the weather has changed already and it is expected to continue to change at an ever faster rate.
The greenhouse gases – principally CO2, methane and nitrous oxide amongst others – are named as such because when they are released into our atmosphere, they act rather like the glass in a greenhouse allowing the sun’s radiation to heat the planet whilst preventing excess heat from leaking back into space.
Even small temperature changes across the world will have a huge effect on our individual lives and, even though scientists, industrialists, politicians and, increasingly, public opinion recognise this, the rate of change and the levels of emissions are, even today, being allowed to rise further.
We keep hearing deadlines to halt the advance of CO2 build up, 2030 and 2050 being those most commonly used.
In the light of these long timescales, I understand completely why Greta Thunberg so memorably accused politicians of ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ while pushing the issue into the long grass.
I am, however, an optimistic pessimist.
Much as I believe that the outlook is challenging and will result in negatives for some, if not all, of the global population for sure, humans have proved to be the most adaptable and innovative of the planet’s species.
These qualities are incredibly powerful.
If and when we can all get ‘on the same page’, I have no doubt we will make the required changes, become totally sustainable, and the world will
be better, more efficient and ultimately more egalitarian than it is today.
Do you think there are issues that have distracted us from the most pressing issues?
We have become a world of activists and many crucial issues today threaten our environment.
However, with some trepidation, I say alongside the other big issue of biodiversity loss, climate change is the immediate threat that demands action.
Yes, the trash island in the Pacific Gyre is bad; our beaches need to be kept clean; animals need to be protected.
But all of this will be for nought if we allow climate change to make our planet uninhabitable.
Climate change is the real existential threat which will affect every single human being across the world.
It is already apparent that we won’t reverse the trend in the short term.
At best we can slow it down and hopefully, in the longer term, we will find ways to cope with the changes or even reverse the trend.
For example, picking up plastic from beaches or cleaning the Pacific Gyre is simply not addressing the far more pressing climate change issue.
There are so many strong activists whose voices would be more powerful if they pushed towards the same goal.
How can the necessary changes be achieved?
I believe much of the general public in the UK and Europe are more knowledgeable than politicians believe.
While many are prepared to accept radical change, it’s important that climate change is a better understood threat.
The scale of the problem demands bold changes which are tough for politicians to offer if they are only eyeing their next term in power.
More than politics we need environmental leadership. We have to act now in the global interest.
How can we have the most positive impact on the environment as individuals?
If we all ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’, we will improve our individual impacts.
We should also be trying to reduce our fossil fuel energy requirement and move towards renewable energy sources.
This may well mean changing providers or tariffs and requires a shift away from gas towards electricity which can be produced sustainably.
Turning the thermostat down and improving our homes’ insulation can make a bigger difference than you may imagine.
The move away from fossil fuels is perhaps the quickest way of reducing our individual impact.
For those that can afford to, an electric car offers a big step forward.
The more of us that do this, the bigger the affordable second-hand electric car market will get in the near future, and the greater the pressure to improve the lagging infrastructure.
How do you see climate change making itself felt in the UK?
The UK coastline has always been in a state of change but any additional mean sea level rise will inevitably encroach on existing low lying areas of the UK coast.
This will increase the speed of natural erosion around our coastline.
Increases in water temperature will impact the survival of temperature-critical species which will either migrate or die off.
The physical effects of climate change are one thing, but perhaps the biggest change will come from global political instability, social breakdown, crop failures, food shortages, and large-scale migration.
Are sailors better equipped to understand or tackle environmental and climate issues?
I was taught to plan my early oceanic passages using Admiralty routing charts.
These showed the monthly statistical wind and weather data for large oceanic areas derived from ship data and accumulated over many decades.
Pre-1990, Admiralty Routing Charts were effective and allowed sailors to optimise their passages, avoiding adverse weather, making the route quicker.
The changing climate has rendered these methods virtually unusable.
Today we enjoy the benefits of super-computer generated weather models from the various international weather agencies which are incredibly reliable.
Even these models have to be constantly tweaked and adjusted, however, as weather is no longer stable or predictable through a single algorithm.
What lessons have you taken from sailing in addressing environmental issues?
In my offshore racing career, our pursuit of performance nearly always drove us towards more sustainable and thus efficient solutions.
We quickly learned that by installing solar panels, hydro generators, quality batteries and efficient electrical systems we can reduce or even eliminate our need for fossil fuel to produce energy.
On my first Vendée Globe in 2000 we started with 350 litres of fuel.
On the 2012 race we started with just 120 litres, much of which was still there when we finished.
If I were involved with IMOCA today, I would be pushing for races like the Vendée Globe to make no fossil fuel a rule.
Any offshore boat is effectively a closed system; if you spend a significant amount of time in such an environment you quickly learn to use all your limited resources economically and efficiently.
What can we as sailors do to reduce our impact on the climate?
Like everyone, sailors have a responsibility to reduce their impact on the environment.
Exactly what form this would take will depend on circumstances and the extent to which the sailor is willing to go that extra mile to act more sustainably.
It might be as simple as seeking ecologically safe cleaning products for your boat or as profound as to take account of the entire CO2 impact and end-of-life strategy for the boats and equipment we choose to purchase.
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It therefore follows that we should all be more demanding of the industry to offer sustainable products.
Boat owners need to manage and maintain their boats while respecting the environment.
This may be avoiding spillages of diesel, oil or waste or perhaps anchoring with respect for the local sea bed.
All of us who enjoy the water owe it to the marine environment to become the environmental guardians of our coastlines and oceans.
Is sailing and the marine industry in itself damaging to the climate/environment?
Undoubtedly the marine industry, like almost any industry, will be a net negative contributor to climate change.
Yachts and boats are now predominantly constructed with materials derived from fossil fuels and with little or no regard to end-of-life strategy for recycling or disposal.
Sailors might well be ‘powered by nature’ but the industry has a long way to go to be truly sustainable.
Ironically if we went back pre-composite and pre-1950s, our boats were constructed with wood and much of the equipment had a minimal impact.
I would love to see new designs incorporating 21st century engineering but using wood.
While steps towards sustainability need to be taken we also have to recognise that the marine industry is a huge employer and contributes significantly to the economy.
Those of us who enjoy the water are first-hand witnesses to the changes taking place in the climate and in the maritime environment.
It follows that seafarers are generally more knowledgeable advocates for positive change than those who don’t have such a direct connection with nature.
In your view, what are the biggest environmental issues facing the marine industry?
I suspect that, even today, the leisure market is but a tiny fraction of the huge problems represented by the global maritime sector.
Shipping remains a significant user of highly polluting heavy fuel oils, and alone is currently responsible for around 2% of global CO2 emissions.
Every single one of us must use our democratic vote or press elected decision-makers to legislate for urgent sustainable shipping solutions.
The day will come when it will be deemed socially unacceptable to own or operate pleasure craft unless they are derived from sustainable sources and can show they are used without negatively impacting the environment.
I’m no fan of motor yachts at the best of times but the current predilection towards big motor yachts is just plain wrong, equally so is the disposable culture around race boat sails.
Mike Golding OBE: The sustainable sailor
The accolades, honours and records that follow Mike Golding’s name are impressive.
He first made an impression skippering yachts around the world with the BT Global Challenge Round the World Race, winning on his third race in 1996/7, having recently set the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation east to west in 1994.
He progressed on to the Vendée Globe, participating in four editions of the solo round the world race, including rescuing a stricken Alex Thomson in 2006.
He’s led the British Admiral’s Cup team and campaigned in the Extreme Sailing Series.
Mike is now Chair of World Sailing’s Sustainability Commission, as well as being a public speaker, a consultant and coach.
Not to forget, of course, that he also sits on the judging panel of Yachting Monthly’s Brian Black Memorial award for marine environmental journalism.
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